True riches

18 September 2016
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20C (RCL)
Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

This is one of the most ambiguous parables in the New Testament — nearly maddeningly so. But I think that is the point of the parable; it allows a number of possible ‘points’ to be drawn from it. No one likes the fact that the master commends the unjust steward for lying (or at least scheming), and, by implication, Luke makes it seems as if Jesus commends him as well. How could Jesus commend dishonesty?

First, of course, we have to set the stage. The first person called in by the steward owes the master 100 baths of oil. A bath is about 8 or 9 gallons. One does not accrue a debt of 900 gallons of oil borrowing a cup of oil at a time from one’s neighbor to bake a cake. The debtor was probably a tenant farmer on the master’s farm, and the 900 gallons was a debt built up over decades of the portion of the crop due to the master as ‘rent.’ A crop shortage would create a debt, on which, no doubt, usurious interest accrued (Sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt). Likewise, the second debtor owed about 1000 bushels.

The landowner likely owed a tribute (typically of grain and/or oil) to the Roman occupying force, and paid that tribute out of the produce of his tenants. So the owner is also between a rock and a hard place. There are instances of peasants extracting concessions from their Roman overlords by threatening to refuse to plant in a given season. The whole economy would crash, while the peasants would live on their kitchen gardens.

Realistically, the land owner cannot expect to recoup 900 gallons of oil or 1000 bushels of grain from a single tenant over a life-time. If the steward had in fact been skimming, he has put his master in an untenable situation. If he hadn’t, his master is just scapegoating him. Either way, he’s screwed. He thinks to himself that he is too weak (old?) to dig and ashamed to beg. He schemes to reduce the debts owed to his master, so that when he is let go, he can expect hospitality from the tenant farmers. That’s still quite a come-down from his current position, but better than manual labor or begging.

His master commends him, my guess, because the master’s stock in honor just shot way up with the tenant farmers. He is now the good man about the village. At one level, then, this parable asks us to think about whose hospitality is important to us and at what cost. Do we want to be welcomed into the homes of the rich, at the cost of shattering the local economy and enslaving the work force, or do we want to be welcomed into the homes of the tenant farmers, at the cost of losing what we could never hope to gain.

The saying that follow don’t really clarify the parable. First, Jesus seems to commend the steward by saying “The children of this age are more prudent (shrewd) in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Children of light could be a reference to the sorts of Christians who withdrew from engagement in the world (like the Gospel of Thomas’ “passersby”). Jesus would then seem to be saying that it is not prudent to try to withdraw from the messy world. Or, it could be a saying along the lines of “Be wise as serpents and as innocent as dove.” In any event, the next saying tries to pin down the meaning of this one: Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous (or injurious) wealth, so that when it fails, they will welcome you into the eternal tents. It is not clear what is meant by eternal tents — perhaps a reference to the wandering of Israel; or to the tabernacle?

The next saying seems straightforward: whoever is faithful in a little is faithful also in much, whoever is dishonest in a little is dishonest in much. But then, the saying seem to stand on their heads. If you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches. How is one trustworthy with dishonest wealth, and what are the true riches. The saying leaves those questions open. Then follows, “if you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will trust you with what is your own?” In this case, what is it that belongs to another? The dishonest wealth? Or perhaps what belongs to God? And then, what is your own? I believe these questions are left open to force into a process of discernment.

As this parable follows immediately on the heals of the parable of the prodigal son, the argument could be made that what belongs to another is the inheritance the father gave his son, who then squandered it. What belongs to another is the grace of God in the covenant. Or arguing from the saying about rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, the argument could be made that what belongs to another is the imperial currency. But in either case, what is our own? The parable does not provide the answer, but instead, forces the question.

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